From the Words section of section of my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells: “Weed out weak, wasted, and wrong words.”
It’s a cliché, it’s a truth: Every word counts. Reading and imagining and experiencing your narrative is a cumulative process. Meanings and usage add up, bit by bit, into gestalts that insert what’s happening to the character into your reader’s mind.
Weak words fail to deliver vivid pictures and actions—do you want that? Waste words take up space and slow the pace—and are among the first discouraging things a professional spots. Even worse, wrong words, words used in an incorrect way, confuse your reader and take them out of the story, not to mention costing you credibility and suspension of belief. Yet the manuscripts of novice writers are filled with just that. Here are some of the worst offenders.
Let’s start with half a word. “Inging,” over-use of the present participle, frequently slows pace and mushes meaning. More often than not, “ings” should be “eds” for crisp writing.
She was polishing her glasses as she searched for the right words. I think this is passive and slow to create a picture in the reader’s mind. Much more to the point, and quicker to create a picture, is:
She polished her glasses as she searched for the right words.
Examples from samples I’ve received:
The rain was turning into snow as they drove. (turned)
Dylan was circling the cabin. (circled)
Joanne was hoping that she would get to see her family skiing. (hoped, ski)
Bob was getting more and more nervous. (grew)
“No,” the heavy woman said, rummaging through the shopping bag she was carrying. (carried)
Lulu was feeling tipsy. (felt)
There are times, though, when “ing” (for me) helps convey an ongoing process. For example, consider “Thinking of his face, she hesitated.” versus “She thought of his face and hesitated.” For me the first version puts a thoughtful look on the character’s face and creates a pause in whatever she’s doing, and the second version is just action.
A waste word, a verbal habit something like the “uh” many people use in speech. A few examples (I almost said “some,” but that was so vague); see how cutting the “somes” costs nothing yet makes the sentence crisper.
Married women always wore some bangles around both their wrists.
Do you have some pressing business?
My big band attained some modest local fame and national press.
There was some movement as the crocodiles attempted to steer clear.
She had some packing to do.
Some tantalizing smells were wafting towards them from across the river. (and let’s change were wafting to wafted)
He had to have some new tires installed.
Another waste word.
William was one of very (the) few who knew. (not needed)
I want the very best students. (redundant—best is best)
Mr. Simpson has been very eager to meet you. (there are no degrees of eagerness—redundant)
. . .in the very coldest part of winter. (redundant—coldest is coldest)
They were very hungry. (starving or famished are more specific, more effective)
During lunch she becomes very quiet. (redundant—quiet is quiet)
In my first novel a reader picked up on a habit I had of overusing “of” as in, “He emptied his pot of coffee.” I used my word processor’s search tool to hunt for “of” and found many that I could change to either a possessive or use an adjective, e.g., “He emptied his coffee pot.” This may seem mindlessly simple to you, but I found lots of places to tighten my narrative, which helped with pace and clarity.
This is an example of improper usage. Many writers use “eyes” when what they really mean is gaze, or glance, or stare. Some examples in which I take the usage to the next logical step:
Her eyes were on the floor. (Luckily, no one stepped on them.)
His blue eyes bored into her. (And then blood gushed from the two holes in her belly.)
She felt the woman’s eyes searching for her. (It tickled when they slid across her face.)
His tired eyes land on me as he glances around the room. (Then they drop to the floor and roll under the couch.)
My eyes follow the headlights. (I ignore the wrenching pain when they leave their sockets.)
Roger kept his eyes on the road. (He realized his mistake when the ice cream truck ran over them.)
Fire up your word processor, open your manuscript, launch the search tool, and type these weak, wasted, or wrong words in the Find what: box and go hunting for opportunities to make your narrative stronger and sharper.
For what it’s worth
© 2011 Ray Rhamey